The Allure of Potential and the Black Hole In the Indians Rotation

The Cleveland Indians can be a frustrating team to follow.  As a small to mid-market ball club, the Indians do not have the luxury to spend big in free agency, and when they do, they usually have to spend extra to bring in overrated players (see Kerry Wood, Nick Swisher, and Michael Bourn).  As a result, the Indians hedge their success on taking risks.  This process started in the early ’90s when they signed their young players with big potential to long-term contracts.  As a result, the Indians turned into an offensive juggernaut with stars such as Jim Thome, Sandy Alomar Jr., Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel, Carlos Baerga, and many others.  However, many people do not realize that the Indians also lost on some of the risks that they took in that era with cases such as Eric Plunk, Herb Perry, and so on.

This strategy has continued to this day, and has resulted in a very promising, yet frustrating team.  Carlos Santana has been productive with his high OBP, but never the player the team envisioned.  Jason Kipnis has had up and down years.  Lonnie Chisenhall has shown moments of brilliance, but has been unable to sustain those moments, resulting in his demotion to Triple-A Columbus last week.

While the offense has been widely inconsistent, the rotation has, for the most part, been brilliant.  Corey Kluber is second in the league in strikeouts with 111.  Danny Salazar, Carlos Carrasco, and Trevor Bauer have been inducing a lot of long walks back to the dugout as well, ranking tied for sixth, seventh, and ninth, respectively.  These four have a combined 3.65 ERA, which is quite remarkable considering that the most respected starting rotation in the Majors (the Nationals) has logged a 3.60 ERA.

However, this is not where the story ends.  As everyone (hopefully) knows, major-league rotations consist of five starting pitchers (unless you’re the Mets for a few weeks).  With the fifth starter added in, the Cleveland Indians rotation has an ERA of 4.37, almost three-quarters of a run higher.  This is absolutely startling.  By themselves, the fifth starters in the rotation have gone 3-8 with an 8.33 ERA.  I’ll repeat that, an 8.33 ERA.  The only fifth starter to win at all has been Shaun Marcum, the man who had not pitched in the major leagues since halfway through 2013.  In the games that a fifth starter has pitched in, the Indians have been outscored 88-48.  Opponents have nearly doubled the Indians run output when a fifth starter has taken the hill.

Are there games that the Indians should have won when a fifth starter has pitched? Absolutely.  But in order to have any shot of making the playoffs, someone has to step up in the back of the rotation and close up the black hole.  A .375 winning percentage does not a contender make.

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